Thames Valley: AI is becoming big business in the region

    Following the news that Oxford University artificial intelligence start up DiffBlue has raised £17 million to revolutionise the way code is developed and tested, it’s clear that artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming big business in the Thames Valley, writes Wendy Hart, corporate finance partner at Grant Thornton.

    Latest figures from TechCity have indicated that 68% of total UK digital tech investment in 2016 was in regional clusters beyond London, with Oxford coming in fourth place at £106m, and providing more than 25,000 digital jobs. Reading, meanwhile, boasts a digital tech turnover of £12.5 billion and 18% of firms are classed as ‘high growth’, according to the report.

    But a recent event we held in Reading, featuring guest speaker Charlie Muirhead, founder and CEO of CognitionX, revealed a disconnect between the strides in innovation made by some tech firms and how much other businesses really understand AI’s potential benefits and applications.

    During the event, we heard about the current AI market and its applications for businesses, with discussions finding that there is a gap in businesses’ knowledge and awareness of AI.

    When most people think of AI, they think of ‘super intelligence’ such as robots able to complete all human tasks, posing the possibility of replacing the need for humans entirely. Realistically, though, this kind of technology is decades away,– more so, existing AI available to us is machines and software, designed to do a specific task, and to do it consistently well, for example driverless cars or layer pickers in warehouses.

    Most of the currently available opportunities have not yet been tapped. There are 10-20 potential AI applications which any business could take advantage of today, however, according to IBM, 76% of businesses are only using one of these applications and almost a quarter (24%) aren’t using any.

    It can be challenging to navigate this technology successfully both personally and professionally, even for the tech-savvy. More so if you are a leader within an organisation or industry that is being disrupted by change. 

    Fear of threat to jobs is one of the main reasons that businesses avoid AI, with many scare-mongering stories being published on the subject on a regular basis. With companies deploying technology such as chatbots for automated customer service, it is clear that the last thing a customer with a problem wants is to get stuck talking to a machine. However what could be beneficial is blending machine driven assistance with human customer service. We can never replace the innate desire of humans to connect and relate to others so there will always be a need for human involvement in these scenarios.

    What is clear is that businesses in the Thames Valley have a huge opportunity to tap into this technology. Some of the region’s largest firms are leading the charge in AI, with Microsoft running a weekend hackathon recently at Thames Valley Park to teach parents and children AI programming through Minecraft. For future generations, AI will be as natural as the internet is to us now. Only by embracing it and investing in the next generation to ensure they possess the skills necessary to succeed, can businesses be equipped with the talent required to create competitive advantage.

    One important potential use for artificial intelligence is to filter ‘big data’ so that we can derive its full benefits. Theoretically, we have access to mountains of data, but practically we have little ability to derive insights from most of it. Society is drowning in data and AI has the potential to tap into areas and identify insights that will benefit business and individuals alike.

    Every day there is a new technology platform, algorithm or application program interface (API) that enhances our capabilities and opens up new possibilities. But with each new frontier come fresh, unanswered moral, ethical and privacy concerns.

    The effects of AI will be magnified in the coming decade, as manufacturing, retailing, transportation, finance, health care, law, advertising, insurance, entertainment, education, and virtually every other industry utilise it to transform their core processes and business models. The bottleneck now is in management, implementation, and business imagination.

    In order to stay ahead of the curve and take advantage of this technological revolution, investing in AI needs to be on the agenda, regardless of business size or sector. Over the next decade, AI won’t replace managers, but managers who use AI will replace those who don’t.